U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer voted last month to support a key part of President Barack Obama’s strategy for fighting the Islamic State, joining the president in ruling out the use of ground troops.
That’s one way the freshman congressman differs from his challenger in the Nov. 4 election.
“I think at some point in the near future we’re going to have to put troops on the ground,” Marty McClendon said.
The Gig Harbor Republican sees it as counterproductive to spend valuable time training moderate Syrian rebels, as Obama is doing with the blessing of Congress and Democrat Kilmer, “versus actually putting trained American military and U.N. military in there and dealing with the problem.”
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Kilmer, who also calls Gig Harbor home, said there should be no ground troops after more than a decade of war. Even regarding the current, more limited mission, he’s cautious. Asked in an interview to say if he supports the ongoing U.S. airstrikes in Syria and Iraq, he instead repeated the text of an earlier written statement that the United States cannot do nothing against the growing threat of the Islamic State.
To rein in presidential authority, Kilmer wants Congress to revoke and replace the law passed in the days following Sept. 11, 2001, that forms part of the legal basis for the “war on terror.”
Meant to authorize military action against al-Qaida and the Taliban, the open-ended authority has since been used by two presidents as justification for counterterrorism operations in multiple countries.
“I think we need a more narrowly tailored authorization,” Kilmer said. “I think this is an area where it’s important for Congress to weigh in.”
Kilmer and McClendon also differ on just about every other conceivable issue.
But Kilmer appears all but assured of winning his first re-election bid. His campaign bank account reached $1.3 million Wednesday. McClendon, a real-estate agent who hasn’t served in public office and who has reported just 16 contributors, has campaign debt that outweighs his cash on hand.
Kilmer is confident enough in victory that he has turned over more than $100,000 of his campaign contributions to national Democrats trying to pull their party out of the House minority.
And that was before he racked up a 24-percentage-point margin of victory in the primary election that advanced McClendon and him to the November ballot in the 6th Congressional District that runs from Tacoma through Kitsap County to the Olympic Peninsula.
INCUMBENT HAS BROAD SUPPORT
Kilmer says his focus, as it was in his former job in Pierce County economic development, is getting people back to work.
He scored victories on a couple of uncontroversial ideas during a busy September.
He saw his first bill signed into law, changing the official name of the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial to reflect its full name. He’s optimistic about the chances for a proposal that won House approval and would let banks join credit unions in offering prizes to savings account holders.
Kilmer’s first-year voting record met with approval from major labor and environmental interest groups while also winning higher marks than the rest of Washington’s House Democrats from the major business lobby.
That broad support is reflected in his campaign war chest.
The $1.9 million he has received includes $10,000 donations from unions representing machinists, painters, airline pilots, electrical workers, federal retirees and government employees and $10,000 from the New Democrat Coalition of which he is a member. On the business side, $10,000 gifts came from committees tied to the American Bankers Association, the Credit Union National Association, insurance company Cambia Health Solutions, pharmaceutical company McKesson Corp. and defense or aerospace companies Boeing, Northrup Grumman, Honeywell and Raytheon.
Some of the same interests, along with Indian tribes, also gave to a separate committee controlled by Kilmer and used to contribute to other Democrats’ campaigns.
Kilmer is in a key position to affect defense companies’ contracts with his seat on the Armed Services Committee.
There, Kilmer has a voice on military spending, pushing for projects and equipment at Washington’s military bases and weighing in on issues of interest to local businesses and groups, from how cybersecurity training is coordinated to what kinds of timber the Defense Department uses in construction.
The seat also gives him a chance to weigh in on the U.S. role in conflicts around the globe.
Kilmer saw the Middle East up close last year when he joined a tour of Israel that many members of Congress take in their first terms. The charitable arm of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobbying group, paid for Kilmer and his wife to travel to Israel.
“There were a lot of things that I reacted to, not just as a policymaker but as a parent – visiting a children’s recreational facility that had to have its roof reinforced because of rocket fire,” Kilmer said.
Kilmer also visited a battery for Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system meant to protect against such attacks. As war in the Gaza Strip this summer produced hundreds of casualties – mostly Palestinians – Kilmer called for more U.S. spending to bolster Iron Dome. He sees a chance for peace if the two sides hold direct talks.
CHALLENGER SAYS RIGHTS UNDER ATTACK
McClendon, who also challenged Kilmer in 2010 for state Senate, sounds an alarm on his campaign website.
“Our national foundation is crumbling, aided by a systematic erosion of fundamental rights by those who hate America, by those who hide their agenda under the guise of political correctness,” he writes.
McClendon, one of the pastors and teachers at Family Church Gig Harbor, says religious freedom and freedom of speech are under attack. He cites calls by Kilmer and other Democrats to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court decisions known as Hobby Lobby and Citizens United.
McClendon said the Hobby Lobby decision rightly protects employers’ religious freedom not to pay for birth control for their employees, while Kilmer says a woman’s boss should have no role in such medical decisions.
Kilmer wants to amend the Constitution to allow for more restrictions on campaign spending, while McClendon agrees with the high court’s Citizens United ruling that such rules abridge free speech.
McClendon wants major changes to Medicare as part of dealing with the nation’s debt. He favors a plan that would gradually replace the insurance program for the elderly’s defined benefits with a defined-contribution plan, in which the government would pay at least part of the cost of a person’s choice of competing plans.
The plan “solves the problem of the ever-growing budget, but it keeps the people that need it now, over the next 10 years, on it,” McClendon said.
He also advocates the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, saying the old system worked for the majority of Americans.
When asked about climate change and carbon emissions, McClendon said they should be addressed but not necessarily through government intervention. Coal power should be made cleaner through market-driven breakthroughs in technology, McClendon said, not by regulations that he said will send jobs overseas where rules are looser.
Kilmer calls for moving away from fossil fuels and limiting carbon emissions through “market mechanisms,” while not committing to support a specific scheme, such as cap-and-trade.
On immigration, McClendon said the border must be reinforced before dealing with current residents.
“We have reports of criminals, (gang members,) terrorists, ISIS coming through our southern border,” said McClendon.
Federal agencies have denied rumors that members of the Islamic State have crossed the border and independent fact checkers have found no truth to similar claims.
Kilmer supports an immigration overhaul that pairs border security and more enforcement against employers that hire workers in the country illegally with a path to citizenship for such residents.